Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Pride of Dutchess County

The county where I grew up in New York happens to be the birthplace of two of the 289 members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I'm not sure if that's a record, but in his book, Baseball in Dutchess County: When it Was a Game, Joseph V. Poillucci reports that he asked that question of the Hall of Fame itself and received an uncertain response. He was told that the Hall's records only include the city, and not the county, where its members were born, but it is known that at least one other county can make the claim, since both Paul and Lloyd Waner were born in Harrah, Oklahoma.

They also sent him the birthplace information for all of the Hall of Famers, but it's unclear as to why he didn't follow through with their suggestion to determine this for himself. However, it's likely that Dutchess County is one of no more than a few counties that can boast of having as many as two native sons in the Hall. It might take a little time, but I'll eventually do the research to figure out the answer for myself.

The two Hall of Famers in question are Wappingers Falls' Dan Brouthers, one of the greatest hitters of the 19th century, and the Columbia-educated Eddie Collins of Millerton. On Sunday, KJ and I went on a mini-tour of the various tributes to the two greatest players that Dutchess County has ever produced.

Our first stop was the final resting place of "Big Dan" Brouthers, St. Mary's Cemetery in Wappingers Falls. Brouthers was actually born in the nearby town of Sylvan Lake, but his family moved to Wappingers when he was just a youngster. Widely considered to be the Babe Ruth of the 19th century, he played 18 seasons in the majors from 1879 to 1896—plus a brief comeback at age 46 in 1904—and is still 9th all-time with a lifetime batting average of .342.

St. Mary's wasn't a large cemetery, but we still had a little difficulty finding his grave. In fact, despite finding the stones of three others named Brouthers, we didn't find his until we phoned a friend for help.

Dan Brouthers' head stoneOur next stop was just down the street to a field dedicated to Brouthers. I first discovered this field about 20 years ago, when I umpired a Little League All-Star game there. I immediately notified my friend Joe, who is an even bigger baseball history fanatic than I am, and neither of us had any knowledge of the existence of this field less than 10 miles from where we both grew up. The field was dedicated in 1971 with an impressive monument to the pride of Wappingers Falls.

You'll have to visit a site called BallparkReviews.com to see what I'm talking about, because unbelievably, the field and the monument were no longer there. It may not be so obvious if you compare the following photo to the one on the site, because they're taken from opposite directions, but I assure you this is the former location of Brouthers Field.

The former Brouthers Field When I informed Joe—who also happens to be the friend I phoned for help in locating Big Dan's grave—of the disappearance of the field, he emailed the mayor of the Village of Wappingers Falls to inquire. Stay tuned for more information on that.

Dan Brouthers was the reigning major league leader in career home runs in 1887, the year that Eddie Collins was born about an hour northeast of Wappingers—as far as one could travel from there without leaving Dutchess County—in Millerton. Eddie "Cocky" Collins, so named not for his arrogance, but for his extreme level of confidence in his sheer ability to play the game, is generally considered to be—along with Joe Morgan and Rogers Hornsby—one of the three greatest second basemen in history.

Collins is also known for being one of the clean players on the 1919 Chicago White Sox, commonly referred to as the Black Sox for the fact that eight players—including Joe Jackson—conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series, and were subsequently banned from baseball. In 1964, the good people of Millerton honored their hometown hero by dedicating the local park to him, building a beautiful stone archway at its entrance. This was our final stop on a day of paying tribute to the two players who share the distinction of being considered, in my opinion, the pride of Dutchess County.
Entrance to Eddie Collins Memorial Park

Friday, June 26, 2009

Frequent Spins (2009.4)

The Boy Least Likely To - The Law of the Playground
I've been fascinated by the term "twee pop" ever since a friend and former co-worker described this particular indie rock sub-genre to me several years ago. I'm still not 100% sure about what music qualifies for this description, but if this isn't twee, then I don't know what twee is. As their name implies, this band's songs mostly revolve around a young man with a poor self image. I'll admit that the subject matter can be a bit much to take at times—and it remains to be seen how much staying power this album will have—but excellent songs like "The Boy with Two Hearts," "I Keep Myself to Myself" and "A Fairytale Ending" manage to keep me coming back for more.

Buddy and Julie Miller - Written in Chalk
This is actually only the second album the alt-country husband-and-wife team have released as a duo, although they both have fairly extensive resumes as solo artists and in support of other artists. In fact, there is quite the supporting cast here, including Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Robert Plant. An intimate and heartfelt affair throughout, the major highlight turns out to be a duet with Buddy and Emmylou, the Leon Payne-penned George Jones classic "The Selfishness of Man," which closes the record out perfectly.

Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
The etymology of the word maudlin is that it's derived from the name of Mary Magdalene, based on her portrayal as a weeping penitent. Camera Obscura's latest effort, however, isn't as sad as the use of that word in its title would seem to indicate. In fact, sweet melancholy is one apt description that I've read, and that sentiment is expressed in the lyrics, "My maudlin career has come to an end — I don't want to be sad again," on the title track. On album closer and standout track, "Honey in the Sun," the upbeat nature of the song effectively masks its bittersweet lyrics, but it still serves to leave the listener with the sense that optimism reigns.

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band - Outer South
Conor Oberst wants to be Bob Dylan, and it couldn't be more obvious than on choice moments of this album, particularly on the rousingly political "Roosevelt Room." On the other hand, he's an unusually egalitarian bandleader, as evidenced by the fact that his bandmates take songwriting and lead vocal duties on six of Outer South's 16 songs. It's the Oberst-written material that stands out, though, with other highlights including "Nikorette," "Spoiled" and "I Got the Reason #2" on another fine release from the Bright Eyes frontman.

Tinted Windows - Tinted Windows
This unlikely super group—consisting of Taylor Hanson (Hanson), James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins), Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne) and Bun E. Carlos (Cheap Trick)—delivers 35 minutes of unadulterated pure power pop pleasure. It's not ground-breaking—in fact, it may not even be good—but it's thoroughly enjoyable. I may throw the term "guilty pleasure" around somewhat liberally, but this album simply defines it. If they can keep writing songs like Schlesinger's "Kind of a Girl" and "Dead Serious," Iha's "Back with You," and the Hanson/Schlesinger collaboration "Take Me Back," I know of at least one person who will keep listening.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Signs of the South

We took a lot of photos of signs on our recent trip down South. Many of these shots were captured simply because we found them humorous in some way. Others were a little more significant to the trip, but all of them are interesting...at least in my opinion.
So, I thought I'd share a few of them with you here.
Gladys Knight and Ron Winans' Chicken & WafflesWe'd only recently heard of the unusual delicacy that is Chicken and Waffles. So, when we walked past this specialty restaurant in Atlanta, I had to snap a picture. Apparently, the exact origins of the dish are unknown, with several accounts tracing its roots to the south. One story, though, is that the Wells Supper Club in Harlem started serving it to their late-night patrons because it was too late for dinner and too early for breakfast.

Anders' Service Station signBesides being a potential apostrophe catastrophe—I can't tell if that mark in the upper right corner is supposed to imply ownership—this is also a tribute of sorts to my soon-to-be-married friend, Anders.

Monument to Hank Aaron's 715thThis, of course, is the monument, original fence and all, to the exact spot of Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715th home run.

Joe Jackson plaqueOn our brief stay in South Carolina, we visited the monument to "Shoeless" Joe Jackson in his hometown of Greenville. This sign sits at the base of a life-size statue in the downtown area of this charming southern town. There's also a museum, but unfortunately it's only open on Saturdays from 10am to 2pm, and on nights that the minor league Greenville Drive have home games, so we weren't able to check it out.

Pub CloseMy new iPod touch uses its GPS capability to determine my location and tell me where the nearest options are for the services I'm looking for. If only there were more signs like this one we spotted in Savannah, there certainly wouldn't be a need for an application to direct me to the nearest bar.

Yes, you may use our restroomOf course, we took them up on their quite generous offer.

J.J. BonerzAt least Hooters has the subtlety to pretend their name has something to do with owls.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

RIP: Jay Bennett (1963-2009)

Former Wilco guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett passed away in his sleep a few weeks ago (May 24). I never knew Jay, but somehow it kind of felt like I did.

Different people handle the passing of people they never knew in different ways. Some grieve for the loss of what that person was to them (i.e. Bennett will no longer be making music for his fans to enjoy). Some feel empathy for the loved ones of the deceased, while others just can't bring themselves to feel anything for people they didn't know. There are also those who grieve as if they actually knew the person. I definitely don't fall into the latter category, but Bennett's passing has reached almost to the Thurman Munson level with me. That is, the most I could possibly feel for someone I was never acquainted with.

I thought I'd use this space to pay tribute to Jay by recounting my personal history of experiences with him, his music and his persona.

I immediately became a fan of his during my first experience seeing Wilco live. It was the summer of 1997, and Len and I made the trip to Saratoga Winners, just north of Albany, to see one of our favorite new bands. As far as we knew at the time, Bennett had just joined the band for the Being There album, and this was his first tour. In reality, he was a member of Wilco even prior to the release of their debut, 1995's A.M., but the album had been recorded prior to him joining the lineup. Regardless, Bennett's dreadlocked blonde hair and on-stage energy instantly captivated us.

Wilco was a much looser band then than they are now, and they added several classic rock covers to a set of tunes from their first two albums and Uncle Tupelo's last. I recall "The Immigrant Song" and "Sweet Leaf," but online set lists fail to confirm this.

The following year, Bennett and Jeff Tweedy toured as a duo, and we were lucky enough to get to see them play the Middle East upstairs, a tiny space with a capacity of less than 200. Again, covers were a key element of the show, but with a little more serious tone this time. Big Star's "Thirteen" is one that comes to mind. At one point in the show, Tweedy even asked the audience for suggestions. When I called out "Sweet Leaf," he scoffed at it, but Bennett immediately started into the opening guitar riff of the Sabbath classic.

Following the release of the pop-oriented Summerteeth in 1999, and considering how different Being There was from the straight-up rootsiness of A.M., Len surmised Bennett had made a major impact on the artistic direction of the band. I was skeptical at the time, probably not wanting to give anyone other than Tweedy that much credit. But, years later I would come to agree with him, even going so far as to suggest Wilco was much better with Bennett than without him.

In 2002, Bennett was fired from Wilco as his relationship with Tweedy had soured. I had yet to see the negative depiction of him in the documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, when he and Edward Burch came to Boston in support of their recent release, The Palace at 4am (Part I). Believe it or not, I actually liked that album better than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the breakthrough album Wilco released that year on which Bennett played and was a significant creative force, having co-written eight of the songs. In fact, I recently wrote in Frequent Spins that I wondered if there ever would be a Part II. According to the Undertow Music Collective, Jay's label and management company, plans for the followup were in the works.

At the show in question, which took place at the former rock club Lilli's in Somerville, Bennett seemed at ease talking to the crowd in reference to his former band. At one point, he addressed fans in attendance by suggesting they were free to, among other things, shout out requests or leave and go to Providence—in reference to the fact Wilco was playing only an hour away, at Lupo's, that same night—if they so desired. It was said in a relaxed and playful manner, and it illicited quite a few laughs from the crowd, myself included.

I never really thought I Am Trying to Break Your Heart portrayed Bennett as negatively as was written about it. He seemed insecure with the fact he and Tweedy weren't seeing eye-to-eye, and overly concerned that Jeff didn't understand him, but I didn't see the control freak some viewers saw. In fact, judging by what I've read since, it seems to me Tweedy undermined Bennett's role as his right-hand man by bringing Jim O'Rourke into the studio. Regardless, I think it says something that Jay's firing was part of a period of high turnover within the band, with drummer Ken Coomer being replaced by Glenn Kotche and Leroy Bach leaving as well.

I've remained a fan of all of Jay's post-Wilco work, although nothing has quite approached the quality of his collaboration with Burch. Regardless, I've always had a soft spot for him, and it was with shock and sadness that I learned of his passing while I was on vacation recently. Although I never really knew Jay Bennett, it somehow felt as if I did. He will be missed.

Jay Bennett photo courtesy of PopMatters
Jay Bennett (1963-2009)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Writing's on the Wall

Returning to the subject of baseball and superstitions, I previously wrote about my experience this year with the Yankees-Red Sox games in my Ladders 'Bout to Fall post in late April. Well, as you probably know, the two teams met up again this week, so I'm going to, once again, recount my personal experience with the games.

On Tuesday night, I basically watched the 7-0 Red Sox victory in its entirety, although I, somewhat understandably, only had one eye on the game during its last few innings. I had a softball game on Wednesday night, so I only caught the end of the Yankees' 6-5 loss, and didn't witness any scoring in the process. I watched the first six innings of Thursday's game before heading out to the show in Cambridge. The Yankees trailed 1-0 when I left, but were leading 3-1 when I arrived at the bar. I then had an eye on the television for most of Boston's three-run 8th inning rally.

To recap, I watched about 18 innings of the action, and the Yankees scored zero runs. They were on the wrong end of a 10-0 score while I was watching, and actually outscored the Sox 8-6 when I was not. As I've said before, I'm really not superstitious, but I'm vowing that, when the two teams play a four-game series from August 6-9, I will not watch a single pitch.

If the Yankees miraculously win three or four of those games, I will do the same for the next series. If they win one or two, I'll probably return to watching, but if they get swept again, I'll also carry the plan over to the next series. However, that will be for an entirely different reason than anything having to do with superstition.

Sunset Rubdown @ The Middle East

I honestly don't recall when the last time was that I attended a show at Cambridge's premier rock club, The Middle East, especially on a weeknight. The problem is that the headliner always takes the stage so ridiculously late, and I just don't recover as well the following morning as I used to. The only thing different about last night's Sunset Rubdown performance—their set started at 11:30—was that I didn't have to go to work today, as I'm working my "flex time" summer schedule of four longer days with Fridays off.

Musically, the show was worth the lethargy that I'm feeling today, although admittedly the consumption of four Harpoon IPAs probably had as much to do with that as the fact that the show didn't end until 1am. Surprisingly, for a band whose two most recent albums were among my favorites in their respective years, I recognized a very small percentage of the songs they played. Their soon-to-be-released record, Dragonslayer, was the major emphasis of last night's set, and the new material did not disappoint. Front-man Spencer Krug's manically off-kilter vocals, and his complex but accessible songs that are equal parts arty indie pop and classic rock, translate well to the live setting. Despite the quality of the newer songs, a personal highlight for me was a rousing version of “The Taming of the Hands That Came Back to Life”, from 2007's Random Spirit Lover.

Once again, my not-so-newfound philosophy of picking and choosing my moments when it comes to the club shows was reinforced. This time, I think I chose wisely.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Four Nights in the Garden of Good and Evil

Following our visit to Atlanta and Turner Field, and a brief stopover at my cousins’ place just outside of Greenville, South Carolina—the former hometown of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson—KJ and I ventured down to Savannah. A charming and historic port city on the coast of Georgia, Savannah lies at the mouth of the river that shares its name. It also has a unique history of interesting, and sometimes eccentric, people and mysterious circumstances.

Forsyth ParkOur first night in Savannah, we wandered around town, getting the lay of the land. The city’s historic district is comprised of 24 squares, although three of these were all but destroyed due to development in the 1950s. Unlike in Boston, where a square is really just a chaotic maze-like intersection, Savannah’s squares are basically miniature parks. Most of them are shaded by Spanish moss covered live oak trees, and many feature fountains and/or statues as their centerpieces.

The next morning, we visited the Mercer House, which was less than a block away from our B&B. The home was built by the great-grandfather of Academy Award winning lyricist Johnny Mercer (“Moon River”, “Days of Wine and Roses”), who was also the co-founder of Capitol Records. The Mercers never lived there, though, but antiques dealer and Savannah socialite Jim Williams—the central character in John Berendt’s true-crime murder story Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—did.

Speaking of Moon River, and since a trip to a new area wouldn’t be complete without tasting some locally brewed beer, the afternoon brought us to Savannah’s one and only brewpub. Moon River Brewing Company’s Wild Wacky Wit is an ordinary, but refreshing, orange peel and coriander-spiced Belgian-style wheat that went well with our lunch on a hot and sunny day. Their Savannah Fest is a German-style fest beer with medium malt character and a nice hop/malt balance. It was most enjoyable, though, due to the fact that Savannah’s lack of an open container law allowed me to get it “to-go” in a plastic cup and consume it while walking around town.

Our second night was not without incident. After much indecision about where to go to dinner, we ended up at a place whose menu did little for me, at least partly due to my distaste for seafood. We opted to just have a drink there prior to moving on, but not before I proceeded to let a pint glass slip out of my hand and knock over KJ’s drink in the process, spilling the majority of both drinks on my lap. The waitress replaced both drinks—mine was a SweetWater Georgia Brown—but considering the state of my shorts, we decided to dine at Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

The SweetWater Georgia Brown was unimpressive, as are most American brown ales—with the exception of Brooklyn Brown—it seems. This one, though, was oddly over-carbonated but with virtually no head retention. Five Guys, on the other hand, was easily the best fast-food hamburger I’ve ever tasted. This was my first visit to the Washington DC based chain, and I left there hoping they have plans to open more locations than the three that are within 20 miles of Boston.

A trip to the south just wouldn’t seem right without some barbecue, and our third night was highlighted by a visit to a place called Blowin’ Smoke. Besides having a great bottled beer list—although I opted for a Dale’s Pale Ale, a rare microbrew in a can—this joint featured the best Kansas City Ribs and green beans I’ve ever had. Their pulled pork, fried pickles and mac & cheese were boast-worthy as well, and the Dale’s—a strong ale that perfectly straddles the line between pale ale and IPA—was the perfect complement.

Bonaventure CemeteryOn our fourth, and final, night we re-enacted a memorable scene from the aforementioned book—well, sort of—by driving to Bonaventure Cemetery with a couple of cocktails, and drinking them while sitting on the grave of writer Conrad Aiken. Now, before you jump to the conclusion that this was a disrespectful act, I should tell you that Aiken’s gravestone is built in the shape of a bench, and he had it made that way for this very purpose.

Aiken’s successful life and career as a poet and writer of short stories was despite a tragic childhood. At 11 years old, the Savannah native found the bodies of his dead parents, the casualties of a murder-suicide committed by his father. He was subsequently raised by relatives in Massachusetts, returning to Savannah later in life, where he lived out his final 11 years.

Overall, our trip to the 13th colony was one of my best vacations in recent memory. That, of course, had as much to do with the company as with the places we visited, although that’s not to say that I don’t wish I was still on the streets of Savannah, drinking a beer from a plastic cup or a vodka and tonic from the styrofoam variety.